Exploring Muslim Identity Through Theater
One of Ferdous Dehqan’s earliest memories is one of fear. He recalls holding hands with his mother while walking past a Taliban checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“What if they stop us?” he thought to himself. “What if they hit my mother?”
Dehqan is one of five young Muslims participating in an interview-based theater production —“Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity”— which focuses on their experiences both before and after the morning of September 11, 2001. With a script written by Ping Chong, Sara Zatz, and Ryan Conarro, this piece is part of Ping Chong + Company’s Undesirable Elements series, dedicated to exploring marginalized experiences.
This series doesn’t just explore the sense of marginalization for young Muslims in America, but it uses interviews about their real experiences to build the script.
Ferdous Dehqan, Tiffany Yasmin Hosein, Kadin Herring, Maha Syed, and Amir Khafagy each joined the cast at LaGuardia Community College. Instead of performing a script as actors, they’re telling parts of their own stories adapted to the stage.
In a Q&A at Hamilton before their performance, the cast members discussed their experiences building the show from the ground up — and how it’s changed since the show debuted in 2015.
Syed had never been interested in theater before this performance. “It was sort of like the first day of high school when we walked in for rehearsal on day one,” she said. “Reading through the script was like discovering each other’s stories for the first time.”
Through storytelling based in real experiences, “Beyond Sacred” tries to find the root of real Muslim lives in America. It allows the performers to share their own stories — giving marginalized communities a platform to speak.
By weaving together five stories for the script, Zatz hopes to explore how there is no one image of what a Muslim looks like. “At its core, this play is about the way we see difference, and then the way that we find commonality in the human experience,” she said.
While the story explores the lives of the performers before and after 9/11, Syed believes that the play is even more relevant today than it has been before. “I honestly think it might even be harder to be Muslim today than it was before. We’re seeing a rise in Islamophobia and growing fear of Muslim identities. It exploded after 9/11, but recent political events have brought it back to the conversation.”
After going from a two-week community college performance to a national tour, Khafagy says he always knew that this show would go far. “I knew it would resonate with people like nothing else had before,” he said. “It allowed me to really embrace my own journey and appreciate my own story. I’ve always been a big believer that in order to challenge what we see in the media, we need to shake the narrative. That’s my goal with this performance — to shake those narratives and force people to question what they thought they knew.”